One of the new areas of agriventure is to cultivate crops that serve other economic purposes apart from food. One of such plants of interest is the diesel bearing plant, jatropha curcas, known in Igbo language as mpianya. In response to the needs of a dynamic global market, jatropha curcas provides us an opportunity to participate in the call for clean fuels. In 2011, the Minister of Science and Technology, Prof Ita Ewa, addressed a forum on the importance of bio-diesel production from jatropha curcas for use as renewable energy in Nigeria.
I was introduced to the plant at the National Research Institute for Chemical Technology, Zaria, some years ago when some scientists, Prof Maduka Okonkwo and Dr Chika Ezeanyanaso, were working on it. They were able to ascertain that oil extracted from the jatropha seeds could effectively be blended with fossil diesel to power plants as practised in countries like India. The Forestry Research Institute, Ibadan, also developed pilot plantations to demonstrate the feasibility of jatropha cropping for willing entrepreneurs. However, the enthusiasm wittled when it was discovered that the plant is a water guzzler. Large plantations that were developed for it by foreign investors in South Africa were abandoned over the fear of an impending draught. However, it can withstand high degrees of aridity and so can be grown in all parts of the country, especially around the forest zones.
Jatrupha shrubs begin to fruit from the first year and come to full maturity within five years, with a lifespan of up to 45 years; delivering an estimated over 1,500 gallons of diesel per acre per annum. The seeds contain about 40 per cent oil, which can be processed to produce high-quality biodiesel fuel that can be used in standard diesel engines or further processed into aviation fuel. The residue (seed cake) is applicable in fertiliser production as it is a rich source of NPK and can be detoxified to produce nutritious animal feed.
Ezeanyanaso, who worked at NARICT during the product development stage about 10 years ago, has continued to work on her findings at the Federal Institute of Industrial Research, Oshodi. She says that having produced at FIIRO, bye products of the extraction process, which include glycerine, has been used as a moisturiser in the manufacture of cosmetic products; and can be further purified to produce glycerol, which is applicable as a sweetener by confectioners.
Glycerin also finds application in the textile industry as a plasticiser. Its medicinal properties make it a useful raw material in the manufacture of anti-fungal soaps, shampoos and creams. With jatropha, nothing is wasted!
Another important appeal that jatrupha holds in Nigeria is its familiarity. Today, international literature on jatrupha describes it as a Mexican, Indian, or American crop but it has always been around us here. The difference is that, although its medicinal properties were not lost on us, our low-level of technology denied us access to its other economic potential.
Nigerians have always used it to fence their compounds (they can still be found in many villages) and, because it is not a forage plant, it was used in preventing animals from straying into homesteads and farmlands. It does not require complex agronomical care and so can be grown extensively by rural people, both for extra income and to meet the energy needs of rural communities. Its oil yield capacity is also rated to be well above that of other fuel crops like maize and corn.
Apart from its economic benefits, jatropha has social and environmental advantages that distinguish it from other fuel crops like soya beans, groundnuts, maize, etc.; whose continued cultivation for fuel purposes competes with their relevance as foods; often-triggering food shortages and increase in food prices. Jatropha curcas ,on the other hand, is inedible and therefore does not threaten the food security needs of humans nor does it compete for land space with food crops since it can grow on marginal fields and waste lands. In India, the railway line from Mumbai to Delhi is lined with jatropha trees while the trains use about 20 per cent biodiesel blend. As a fuel, its carbon emissions are low and it does not have much of the characteristic pungent odour of fossil diesel and kerosene.
Biodiesel is an auspicious discovery for Nigeria. For one, Nigeria transports her petro-fuel using diesel powered ‘petrol tankers’, instead of pipelines, so the nation’s diesel consumption is very high, often causing scarcity and attracting high costs. Besides, the low performance of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria has driven many homes, offices and industries to purchase diesel powered generating plants, which consume a lot of diesel and pollute the environments where they are situated. Local production of biodiesel could reduce the multiple pollutions caused by these aberrations in our society, while also stabilising diesel prices. Already, some airlines across the world have successfully tested the suitability of jatropha fuel blend as aviation fuel.
The potential are attractive. Expected triggers for a surge in demand is the recent environmental meeting in New York where Nigeria and other countries signed to reduce carbon emissions by 20 per cent by 2020. Nigeria would follow up with a policy to blend 20 per cent biofuel into locally consumed fuels. This is a huge opening for the discerning.
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